Learning Transfer with Ina Weinbauer-Heidel

Written by Robin Hoyle

Key points summary

Ina discusses how her work in learning transfer started as a practical solution to her own transfer issues. Whilst working at an Austrian business school Ina researched the various academic models but found no practical answers to her transfer problem.

Research conducted in learning is often done from a school or universities perspective. This difference becomes particularly important in corporate learning as individuals are often expected to put new skills into practice immediately in high-pressure environments.

Ina’s pursuit for a practical solution to the creation of twelve levers of transfer effectiveness. Each lever, pulled differently, enables businesses to get better impact from their investment in learning and development.

Ina discovered that many factors in academic research provided no real practical help for learning and development professionals. In turn, this helped Ina narrow over a hundred factors down to just twelve that make up the levers of transfer effectiveness.

One of the twelve levers of transfer effectiveness is manager involvement. If managers support what their employees learn and support the application then there is a high probability that the individual will put these new skills into practice.

Businesses looking to get started improving transfer effectiveness within their training programmes could start with action planning. This is easy to implement and means no participant leaves the training room without a precise implementation intention.

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Conversation transcript

Hello and welcome to the Workplace learning Matter series from Huthwaite International. In this episode, Robin talks to Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel, the multi-talented academic speaker, consultant, trainer and head of the Institute of Transfer Effectiveness, focusing on what makes training really work. This is the recording of that conversation.

Robin Hoyle: Welcome to the podcast. Your work is around learning transfer. In other words, the ability, or the opportunity, for people to use what they have been sent to learn when they go back into the workplace. What first interested you in that topic of learning transfer?

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: It was actually quite a practical problem — my own transfer problem. I worked in a quite famous Austrian business school where I was designing and developing customised MBA programmes and leadership programmes. I was really proud that I was doing this fancy kind of work. But as time passed, there was this question coming to my mind again and again; a question that probably every HR person asks him or herself at one point or another, and the question was, ‘How effective are my programmes? Am I really making a difference? Do people really apply what they learn in my wonderful and expensive programmes?’ I couldn't get rid of these questions anymore, so I started digging a bit into some research and I found out that there are a lot of people who are interested in this transfer of training issue.

The problem was that I couldn't find a practical solution to my transfer problem. I could find a lot of academic models, a lot of determinants or factors that really influence transfer. But I found out that there is no practical answer to the transfer problem, and this was exactly what I wanted to find.

So, combining this academic research with something that I personally could use to improve my own programmes was the start of our model at the Institute of Transfer Effectiveness.

Robin Hoyle: And that idea of looking beyond the academic studies, those of us who are involved in what we hope is evidence-based practise, looking at research from academia, as well as programmes from research done by organisations working with employer organisations, et cetera — and one of the things that we find is, as soon as you start looking at research into learning, you end up talking about schools, or you talk about university students. There seems to be a bit of a gap between some of the areas of academic study, which seem to be in the sphere of education, and some of those areas of academic study which seem to be in the area of corporate learning and changing behaviour back in the workplace. So, what was the research that you needed to do to bridge that gap between the academic stuff and the more practical, pragmatic stuff for people in work?

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: I think that's an important question, because I think it's really kind of dangerous to mix school research — so research done in schools and about education there — with corporate learning. The main difference for me is that in everything that belongs to a classical education, we don't have this opportunity for application in a tight time. So, we kind of educate our kids for a while after their schooling but that is not what we have to think of when we think of corporate training. There, we want people to be immediately able to use their skills, which is, in terms of transfer, a good thing and a really important thing, and we have to build on that.

So, what I did with my research is that I just looked at corporate learning. I don't want to find the kind of holy grail to every education, to every transfer problem, but the holy grail to the transfer problem in the corporate world. And we were quite strict here. So, our study is just based on research in the corporate context.

Robin Hoyle: What you came up with was essentially twelve levers — you call them the levers of transfer effectiveness. This idea of being able to pull these levers differently to enable organisations to get better impact from their investment in learning and development. So, just summarise what those levers are and the groupings that they're in as well, because it's not just a list of twelve, they're in three distinct sections, aren't they?

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: Exactly. So, when we did this big literature review, we started with the last meta-analysis there. It was from 1988, so quite a while ago, where the Baldwin and Ford brought up their model with three areas, which is organisation, trainees and training design. So, these three areas have a historical background in the academic world, and that was the basis. What we then did was we went through all these factors that have proven to have an impact on transfer of training, and the ugly part was that we ended up with more than 100 factors which have proven to impact transfer of training. No one, in everyday practise, can work with more than 100 factors. That's just not doable to work with them when you have other things to do.

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That was kind of hard, because you can imagine after locking myself in my office with a lot of research papers for about three and a half years, I ended up with more than 100 factors, and it was a bit depressing, because it seemed like there is no practical solution to the transfer issue. It took me a while, there was kind of this depressive phase of my academic career, but then I got this tip from one of my mentors who said ‘Okay, try to find a pattern — try to find something that helps you to get sense out of it’. And when I looked at all these factors again, it turned out that a lot of those factors are nice to know but offer no real practical help.

So, for example, several researchers have found out that cognitive ability, or in their terms, kind of intelligence, is an important factor for transfer. That's nice to know and we can talk about it in a highly academic way, but what should we do with this information in everyday practise? We cannot do an intelligence test before every training programme and just let the most intelligent ones into our trainings. That's ridiculous. So, this is one of the factors which is nice to know from an academic point of view but offers no real practical help for L&D people who are interested in solving the transfer issue.

And there came the kind of fun, or maybe useful part of our work. We dropped all the factors which are just nice to know but no real help, and we dropped all the factors that only researchers are happy about, so those with a little influence or those where we only have two or three studies which prove that they have an impact. So, we ended up with a set of factors that are highly important that we can manage as L&D professionals. And that was how we ended up with twelve. We still have this kind of historical order of training design, organisation and participants, and within these three areas, we have our twelve levers.

Robin Hoyle: One of the things that I've heard you say in the past is that learning transfer and people involved in transfer effectiveness have a transfer problem. Apart from the fact that there's 100 or more ways that you can improve the impact of your learning intervention, what else is it about that transfer problem? Why isn't that more widely understood by people, do you think? And what can we do about ensuring that people do get the idea? There are these twelve things, they're not the only twelve things you can do in the world, but actually, they do have highest impact, and we have the research evidence to support it. So, how do we get people to kind of buy into that idea of ‘do this stuff, rather than that stuff, because this stuff works’?

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: For me it was so surprising that we have so many years, about 120 years of transfer research — and there is a lot of fantastic researchers out there — but still we haven't solved the transfer issue, as you said. And one of the main things is that we come from different perspectives. So, academics want to do it perfectly. They want the whole picture; they want to have it in an academic methodology, in a really perfect way, and practitioners need a practical solution. Research-based is wonderful, because it should work, but they cannot do it in a perfect way. The real world isn't this white, shiny, unicorn, perfect world. I think this is why we still have this transfer problem.

The academics are trying to find the perfect solutions and sharing it with practitioners, and practitioners say, ‘We want it research-based, but in a practical way’ and this is why I think the twelve levers can really help here. It's kind of a compromise of a perfect or an easy way to apply research into everyday practise. The twelve levers show us on which factors we should focus on.

So, for example, one of the twelve levers — just to make it a bit more tangible — is we know that if we include supervisors, if managers are kind of supporting what their employees learn in their training programmes, if they support the application, then we have a high probability that people applied.

We know one factor, one of these twelve levers is support from supervisors, and then we have to think of which kind of tools can we use to get the supervisors on board? Typically, at this point, research kind of stops, so they say, ‘We need to bring the supervisors on board’, but then we still have the question, how can we do it? And how can we do it in our company, with our history, with our culture? For example, ‘Several years ago, we tried to bring supervisors on board, and it somehow completely failed, because we did it in the wrong way. So how can we do it here?’

And this is where research is, to be very honest, not that helpful anymore, because they don't have that many tips, and this is where we want to find the bridge between the both.

Robin Hoyle: In terms of the work that you're doing within the Institute of Transfer Effectiveness, you are helping organisations to implement the levers. Just talking about that manager engagement thing, what are the tips and techniques that working with companies has shown you? Actually, ‘This works. This doesn't’. What are the ways in which we get managers more effectively and more sustainably involved in the learning of their teams and people that they send on training courses?

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: Exactly. Talking from the practical point of view, the biggest mistake you can do here is to make it too big for supervisors — to make it in a kind of academic-perfect way. If you really want to lose your supervisor, you can tell them that every supervisor must have a talk with every employee and has to fill in a long form, where they fill in what they have talked about and what their goals are. How will you apply it? Then, you need to force the supervisors to send this form to the L&D department, who then signs it and tells them ‘You haven't done it’. If you do it like that — and I have seen that — you will probably lose your supervisors.

The fun thing here is that this is exactly the way that research teaches us that we should do it, because it's the way to get the supervisors involved the most. That's exactly what I wanted to share before, that we cannot do it in an academic perfect way, and on the same side, in a kind of practical way.

What I can recommend here is, if you want to bring the supervisor on board, it's so important that you make it easy for supervisors. That means instead of handing in this big form where they have a long chat for an hour, you can, for example, if it fits to the company culture — and that's an important thing — you can just tell them, ‘Here is some money, go with your employee to have a coffee and ask these four questions. Ten minutes is enough’.

We know from research that already 15-minute conversations between supervisors and employees have a significant impact on transfer effectiveness. Make it easy. Make it small. Have a coffee to go. Ask those four questions and go through it very quickly. Or in other companies where, for example, they have already kind of burned supervisor support, you can invite them to the kick-off session of your new training programme. Tell them, ‘Supervisors and employees come in together’ and then have this one-on-one conversation during that time in the kick-off. Tell them, ‘Have your breakout session right now. Go through these four questions and come back’. Then, they don't have any possibility to slip away, and you have this first round where they are really included.

Another huge issue is that most supervisors have this idea that HR development is something that the HR department does — that it's not their job to develop people, because they have a people development department somewhere. And this is the completely wrong mindset. We must make sure that supervisors understand that people development is their job. They want a good team. They want people who are competent. And the great thing is, they don't have to do it alone. They can make use of the service of their HR development department.

So, if we turn it around, we must communicate that in a way that they understand. For example, ‘HR development is a help for me, who helped me to be a good HR developer on site’. That's the main thing. But that of course also means that our HR development tools need to be really perceived as supportive and not as additional work.

Robin Hoyle: Sure. And I think that idea of the kind of extra bureaucracy that we put on managers to say, ‘Here's some more admin to do, off you go’, that's not going to enthuse people. That's not going to get anybody excited about the opportunity that it brings. But I also wonder whether the L&D team have been guilty of saying, ‘This is our job. Development of people is our job’. And while I think we don't want the managers to stay out of it, we've not always given them a proper role to play or a proper activity to do, which is doable within their day job.

We have quite a lot of managers because, for example, particularly if we're working with people like sales teams or procurement teams or people like that, the team leaders themselves are involved in the doing of the job, as well as the supervision and the management of the team. And having that kind of dual head means it's difficult for them to concentrate on that development piece. But, for sure, the best implementations that we've seen have been the ones where managers and team leaders have recognised that they need their teams to behave in different ways, and therefore have been prepared to invest in supporting them to do that behaviour.

And in terms of those team leaders, you talked also about the trainees having some jobs to do, and one of the things you mentioned is this idea of meaningful action planning. You talk about implementation intentions within the book. This idea of ‘What I am going to do differently’ is bound, if you like, by a set of occasions or triggers. We say, ‘When this happens, I do this’. So, just talk to me about the impact of that different way of action planning, which is less tick box and more organic, if you will.

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: Yeah, exactly. That's maybe one of the ‘quick-win tools’ or the ‘quick-win levers’. I often get asked, ‘Ina, what is the lever that we should address first? Where do we get quick wins? Where can we do something easy and get a huge impact?’ Obviously, you cannot say to every company, ‘Start with this very point’, because every company is different, and every training programme is different.

But still, if I get asked, I say, ‘If you just want to start with a very little thing, then start with the lever transfer planning’. This is a lever from the area training design and it's easy to address, because it means no participant leaves the training room, virtual or physical, without a precise implementation intention. So normally we end trainings with, ‘Let's have a feedback round. It was so nice together. I will go through all the material again when I'm back on my job. It was amazing. See you, bye’.

We know from research, and to be very honest, I know that from myself very well, that we won't go through all the material again. We don't have time. There is a lot of emails on our desktop when we are back from the training programme, so we won't go through it again.

And moreover, we also know from research that we have a decreasing motivation for application after the training ends. So, if we haven't planned our very next step, in detail, at the end of the training, then we won't do it. These are exceptions. An easy thing here is that the facilitator, the trainer or even the training programme — if you don't have a trainer or facilitator anymore — encourages or nudges you to write down what your very next step is. So, what will you do as a first step when you are back on the job?

And the important thing here is — this is something we have learned from Behavioural Sciences in the last years really strongly — that we have to focus on baby steps. A term used by BJ Fogg, a Stanford professor, says we should try not to do huge things, like, ‘I will completely change my daily routine’, but plan in really small baby steps. So small, that it kind of sounds ridiculous.

What we need is strong motivation, a strong vision. So, how does this picture of myself look if I'm applying everything I've learned here? The vision can be big, but the very first step needs to be in the form of a baby step. For example, the first thing could be ‘After listening to this podcast, I will go to the website of the Institute of Transfer Effectiveness and see what my next transfer step could be’, or ‘I will ask my colleague the question “Have we ever thought about implementing transfer tools in our programmes?”’ Because what we see from research is that when participants plan their very first steps, we can double or even triple transfer success rates, just by writing down your very next step. And that's really high impact.

Robin Hoyle: Once that’s written down, what do people do with it? Because this is one of the areas we've been debating within Huthwaite — we've always had an action plan component, which is part of the evaluation form asking ‘What are you going to do next? Have you got an action plan?’.

We've got an action plan which sits in people's workbooks, which we give them nicely produced documents that they take away from the programme. So, they've done the writing, and one of the things that we're working on a lot now is that that action plan is shared with their cohort, shared with their facilitator and one hopes is shared with their team leader. But also, that everybody else can comment on that and provide some advice and say, ‘Oh, that's a good action plan. Have you thought about talking to Fred?’ or ‘Have you spoken to Julian?’

It’s that kind of idea of being able to get the input of other people, but also, one of the things that you mentioned in the book is this idea of making a commitment to someone else, so it's not just you that's responsible for your action plan, somebody else is calling you to account for that. What's the kind of psychological transfer process that's happening there? Is it just that people will be embarrassed not to do something that they said they would? Or is there some more mutual support process in play there? What's happening?

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: So basically, if you share it in public, you combine this lever of transfer planning with the lever of support from peers and your peer group. So, kind of sticking to what we have said, it’s a really deep need in us, as human beings, that other people can rely on us. We should never make an action plan with something like ‘Yes, I think I will try out some of these techniques within the next month’, because it's really easy to not stick to it, and nobody will care about it, because it was not precise enough.

But if you say, ‘Okay, on Monday, in this conversation with Martin, I will try technique XYZ and I’ll share how it worked for me with you afterwards’, then you have a much more realistic picture if you have done it or not. And the fancy thing is, there is something which we call ‘Spotlight Effect’. So we think when we share something with others, the others will watch us really precisely and recognise if we haven't done it. So yeah, it’s quite obvious we won't see it in other people if they’ve stuck to their plans or not.

But in our own perception, there is this ‘Spotlight Effect’, where people are embarrassed if they wear the same clothes to two different events, because others will recognise that they’re wearing the same clothes. That's exactly what the ‘Spotlight Effect’ is about, and a lot of us don't have any idea what the others wore that day.

We can use that in the transfer field as well. When we share it, we have this strong need to stick to what we said, and we have this feeling that others will see and care about it a lot. And there is something that I learned from Alcoholics Anonymous, which was fantastic. They taught me that you can pair up learners to transfer coaches, and the important thing here is, that you never talk to the coachees, but to the coaches. Everyone has both roles, of course, but you never say, ‘Ask your coach for help’ but you always say, ‘Help your coachee to stick to his or her plans’.

For example, you do the transfer planning at the end of your training session, and one week later, you say, ‘Coaches, please ask your coachees, “Did they stick to their plans?” and “What were your obstacles?” and share it with the others’. Then the coaches will get really keen on their coachees doing their things and, moreover, they want to be a role model themselves. So what we have seen so often is that in that very moment, they stick to their own plans, just to be a role model for their coachee. This is an absolutely fantastic little tweak, and it works.

Robin Hoyle: And from that design piece that you talked about earlier, there's obviously a space there to make sure that the action plan, the next steps that you talked about, are as specific as possible. So I can either say, has it happened, or hasn't it? We've all seen the action plan which says, ‘I intend to apply this learning when I get back to my workplace’ Yeah, right, that's never going to happen. There's something which talks about, ‘I'm going to do this’, ‘I'm going to do it by Tuesday’ or ‘I'm going to do it every time this happens’, so it's very clear that there is that focus and support.

But the other thing, and particularly, I think, from the Alcoholics Anonymous example, is that that coach doesn't need necessarily to be in a supervisory role or to be trained in some kind of coaching methodology. They can be a peer coach. On some of our programmes, we set up buddying pairs or even a triad. That idea of communicating to the person about their buddy's performance and about what they're doing to support that seems like an interesting model for how it doesn't need to be massively formal in terms of the coaching relationship, but it needs to be sustained and supported and encouraged.

And in terms of that design piece, when you're putting together a programme, how do you build the foundations for that into the programme, so that when the training is over, there is something to work with rather than it being an afterthought?

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: You just brought up a really important point, because here we can see that it has a lot to do with the culture we are working in. For example, if you're working in Japan or in China, you can't do it without supervisors, because hierarchy is everything there, and you have to include tools where the supervisor himself has to support the new behaviour.

In other cultures, where you don't have that high hierarchy, let's say Finland, or countries like that, we very often see that the supervisor doesn't have that much impact on the behaviour of participants. Their peers are much more important. And that's another thing which we cannot kind of cover in research because you always have to think about your company, your team, and your training topic when you are designing these learner journeys.

That's the thing I have learned from practise, because a transfer tool that works in one company and with one culture doesn't work in the other and that was kind of hard to learn. We design the learner journey after we have talked about the target group and the goals, but then we design which kind of learning points we have. So, do we have virtual? Do we have any face-to-face stuff? What do we have in between in self-learning? That's the learning journey.

And around that learning journey, we then ask, ‘What about the twelve levers? Have we included the supervisors? How have we included them? Have we included them before or in between? Afterwards?’ Then we look at the next lever, ‘Have we included peer support in there?’ No, not so much. ‘Okay, let's build in a buddy system’, as you said. Then we go through, ‘Have we covered the lever transfer planning?’ And we build in that. So, we go through all the twelve levers and say, ‘Is this lever important in that very programme? Have we covered it in a good way that really fits to the company culture?’ And if we have gone through all the twelve levers, we know that this programme will work at a very high probability. That's how we design it.

Robin Hoyle: I think in some ways, that's kind of the best you can do, which is to say, ‘We have created the conditions in which people could, should and will be supported to transfer what they have learned back to day-to-day'.

I'm reminded of the phrase of Carl Rogers, who was a social psychologist and educator, working in the 1960s and he said, ‘I can teach a person nothing, I can only create the environment in which they learn’. And I just thought, that's absolutely got it on the head. Create the environment and there will be people who do it, and people who don't do it, but we don't give them a get-out clause, which is, ‘Well, nobody told me’, or ‘Nobody helped me’, or ‘Nobody gave me the time and the space to do this.’

Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel it is an absolute joy to speak to you I hope you've enjoyed the conversation I've certainly been thinking of all sorts of things that I need to do as a result of this. Thank you for your contribution and joining us from Austria on the Workplace Learning Matters podcast.

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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